ON OUR third date, the wheels fell off the cart.
In other words it took Matt three whole dates to figure out what kind of asshole I was.
Frankly, I was shocked it took him that long.
SO EVERYTHING was going great.
Well, I don’t want to say great, because it took a kid killing himself to make Tyler stop running from himself. He still hadn’t shared what he was running from, but I was willing to give him time. I mean, I’d obsessed about this man since I was in high school; what was a couple of months?
Turns out it was everything.
We were on our official third date when it finally all came out.
We had decided to dress up and have a “fancy dinner,” as Tyler put it, and made reservations at Paul’s Bistro, the only place in Foster you need a reservation. I was excited, because who doesn’t want to get all suited up and go out in public with someone who looks like Tyler on his arm?
I was upstairs in my brother’s old room, watching out the window since my father said he wanted to have a little fun at Tyler’s expense. I tried to wave my dad off, but he said he never had any daughters and always wanted to grill a boy about his intentions, so he was taking the chance now.
Matt knocked on my parent’s door at 6:30 p.m. sharp. He wore a dark blue suit that had to have been tailored for him because it was hugging him in all the places I wanted to hug at once.
So of course I hovered.
“Hey, Mr. Wallace,” Tyler said with an easy smile. “Is Matt ready?”
“He’s getting ready.” My dad’s tone was harsh enough to make me jump. “Why don’t you come in, Mr. Parker?”
I could hear Tyler pause at that. “Everything okay, sir?”
My dad had to have loved the “sir” part; he ate that old-world-manners crap up with a spoon.
“Just come in and sit down, son,” my dad insisted gruffly.
Tyler walked in, and I closed the window quietly before I went to the top of the stairs and crept down two steps to listen. I was a master at this; in fact, all of the Wallace brothers are house ninjas in their own right. We had an overprotective father and a worrisome mother to live with, so we learned young how to navigate the old house without a creak or thud that might give our positions away. We had mischief to get up to and we had no time to deal with parents. That was great training, by the way.
So now I just perched and listened.
“So you and Matt have been getting close,” I heard my dad say.
“Yes, sir,” Tyler said, sounding completely unlike himself.
“What are you two up to tonight?”
I almost laughed at the small pause Tyler gave. I assumed he was strangling his first response: “Your son and I are almost forty. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you a thing.” Instead he replied, “We have reservations at Paul’s tonight.” Another pause. “Sir.”
“Paul’s, huh?” My dad’s voice sounded moderately impressed. “That’s an expensive place.”
“Your son is worth it.”
You could toast bread from the heat coming off my smile.
“I suppose. But you footing the bill for a meal like that could imply that you expect to be compensated.”
My smile got a little smaller.
“I don’t understand, sir?” Tyler asked.
“Well, we’re both men, son. If you’re going to pony up that much money, my son better put out. I mean, if he didn’t, that would be a waste of—”
He didn’t finish because I almost fell down the stairs screaming, “Dad, stop!”
Which was when I was blinded by a flash of light.
“Told ya,” my dad said as I rubbed my eyes. “Like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Still confused, I looked around and saw Tyler almost crying, he was laughing so hard. My mom stood off in the kitchen doorway shaking her head, disapproving of all the horseplay but resigned to the fact that it was inevitable.
I knew how she felt.
“You were pulling my chain?” I growled at my dad.
“And, like any good dog, you came stumbling along!” He was shaking a Polaroid picture that dangled from his fingertips, drying.
“You knew about this?” I gaped at Tyler. He was busily forcing his face into a more serious expression, although he couldn’t do anything about the grin that leaked out….
“I was just playing along!” he insisted.
My eyes darted back and forth between them; I wasn’t sure who I was the more pissed at.
“You’re going to make them late!” my mom chastised my father.
Tyler looked at his watch. “Shit! We do need to go.”
“Go!” My dad waved us toward the door. “And have fun.”
“I hate you,” I said over my shoulder at my dad as Tyler walked me out.
“Wait till I post this for your brothers on the tweeter. Then you’ll hate me.”
I opened my mouth to argue just as Tyler said under his breath, “Do you really think your dad has a Twitter account?”
I snapped my jaw shut and strode briskly toward Tyler’s car.
“You look good in your suit,” he offered, jogging past me to open my door.
“You know what that little stunt earned you?” I asked, getting in.
“Little bit of punishment?” he answered with a huge smile, leaning toward me.
“You’re damn right a little bit of punishment.”
He kissed my cheek. “Love ya.”
I said nothing in return.
If my dad did have a Twitter account, my brothers would never let me live that picture down.
HE POUTED most of the ride to Paul’s, but I rubbed his leg some and kept giving him my kissy face until he finally cracked and laughed.
“You’re such a goofball,” he said, shaking his head.
“No one can stay mad at me,” I confirmed smugly just as I pulled up to the valet parking stand in front of the Bistro. “It is the power of the Parker smile.”
“Well, you’re cheating,” he said as the valet opened his door.
“No,” I announced over the car roof. “I’m winning.”
He rolled his eyes again, but I knew I had him.
For about fifteen minutes or so.
I’D NEVER been in Paul’s Bistro before; my dad didn’t make anywhere near enough money to be able to afford to eat at a place like that. The sheer tonnage of food my two brothers and I consumed daily pretty much ensured Dad bought food in bulk until we moved out. The restaurant’s décor was elegant French rich-casual, complete with subdued lighting and quiet ambient instrumental music beloved by other high-end restaurants I’d had dinner in on the coast.
Looking around, I felt my two-year-old Armani suit was like a potato bag with holes for arms.
“All of those women are asking themselves ‘Who in the hell is that hot guy?’” Tyler whispered next to me.
“And then they ask who the guy in the crappy suit is,” I muttered back.
His eyebrows shot up. “Are you kidding? You look so fuckable in that suit right now—”
And then the hostess walked up. “Name?”
Tyler’s head snapped toward her. “Parker, for two.”
She smiled and looked down at her book. “How you been, Tyler?”
There was no way she was not flirting with him.
“Oh! Hey, Mel, good. How are you?”
She glanced up at him. “Still waiting for you to call me.”
I tried not to sigh as yet another straight girl hit on the guy I was with. I swore I needed to date less attractive guys.
“Mel, this is my boyfriend, Matt.”
Now it was my turn to look over.
Her reaction was priceless. In two seconds she experienced shock, then disbelief, and finally unfriendly judgment. In a carefully controlled tone, Mel said, “I hate that all of the incredibly hot guys are gay.” A lot more hastily than was proper, she snagged two menus from the small pile on her desk. “This way, please.”
Tyler grabbed my hand as we followed.
“What are you doing?” I asked as we walked through the dining room, our hand-holding drawing glances.
“Making two things clear. One, I’m gay, and, two, you’re mine.” He squeezed my hand, and I couldn’t stop the smile that came to my face.
“Here you go,” Mel said in what could only be well-controlled annoyance. “Your waiter will be right with you.”
“Nice to see you again,” Tyler called as she stomped off.
I covered my mouth to stop from laughing out loud.
“You enjoyed that,” I said to him.
He pulled my chair out. “You’re damn right I did.”
This was going to be a good night.
I ORDERED us some wine and looked across the table at Matt.
“So, you hungry?”
All it took was an arch of an eyebrow and the slight twitch of my mouth to make that question really dirty. So dirty I saw him look down at the menu in a flash.
“There are no prices on this,” he stated after a second.
I took the menu from him. “You know how the saying goes: in places like this, if you need to ask about price, you shouldn’t be here in the first place.”
“You can’t afford this!” he protested.
“I can for one night, and it’s worth spoiling you.” My smile was accompanied by my foot, hidden by the table’s floor-length cloth, moving up Matt’s leg.
Good thing about loafers—you can slip them off real easy.
His eyes got wide when he felt my foot, and I could see him struggle not to look down at his lap.
“Tyler, stop!” he hissed.
“Full-length tablecloth,” I replied. “No one can see a thing. Besides”—evil grin—“I can feel you’re liking it.”
I paused when the wine steward brought a bottle to our table and opened it up. He offered me the cork, which I set aside. Test one passed. Slightly encouraged, he then poured a small amount into my glass. After the correct sniff, swirl, and nod of approval from me, he poured us each a glass. Of course, I had continued to make Matt squirm the entire time.
“Enjoy your wine, gentlemen.” With that, the steward retreated.
“You. Are. Evil,” Matt proclaimed, reaching down to push my foot out of his lap.
“What? I can’t help it if you drive me crazy,” I said, slipping my shoe back on.
“This is full-grown you? God, you must have been horrible in high school.”
I chuckled. “In high school I was too terrified that someone would find out about me to even think about fooling around. Most of the time I just sat there and let the girl do the work ’cause I was too afraid I’d do something gay.”
He nodded. “Yeah, me too, but I still know better than to molest someone under a table in public.”
Shrugging, I said, “I’m a growing boy.” I just couldn’t help myself; I winked at him and added, “So were you a couple of seconds ago.”
He opened his mouth to say something when a woman’s voice shrilled, “How dare you?”
I felt my spine shudder as my brain registered the owner of the voice.
“How dare you come here and make a mockery of my son’s life?”
Dolores Mathison. Riley’s mother—the man I let die in the middle of nowhere.
My past had just T-boned the present like a semi racing through a red light and smashing a Silverado.
ONE SECOND I was being fondled under the table by Tyler—or, rather, Tyler’s foot; the next a skeleton dressed as a wealthy lady was screeching at us. She came out of nowhere. True, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to what was going on above the table, but still. It was way sudden.
“Mrs. Mathison,” Tyler managed to say around his shock. He stood up so fast he bumped the table with his leg, sending our wineglasses to the floor. He reached out to her, which was exactly the wrong thing to do. She reared back like he was the walking dead.
“Do not touch me!” Her voice hit a whole new level of shrillness. “How dare you come here?” she repeated.
“I had no idea….” He stumbled over his words. “Please let me….”
His voice trailed off because I was pretty sure he had no idea what he was offering.
“Let you what? Stand there and watch my son die again? Be an accessory to murder? What could you possibly give me, Mr. Parker, to compensate for what you’ve taken from me?”
Tyler seemed to shrink away from her.
“Hey, back off,” I interrupted uncertainly.
Her glare swept to me, and I knew what Percy Jackson felt like when Uma Thurman looked at him.
What? I’m not a mythology buff, okay?
“So you’re what? The boyfriend?” she asked rhetorically. “Let me ask you a question. Do you know the man you’re dating?”
It’s the question no one with a brain asks when dating. Do you know the guy you’re falling for? The short answer is always no, of course you don’t. No one is himself when he dates; instead he is the best version of himself because he doesn’t want to scare the other guy away. You don’t bring up your near obsession with all things Disney, for example; instead you just say you’ve heard Frozen is good and you both should go see it. You don’t say you have the emotional maturity of a fourteen-year-old and that every other thought you have is of sex. Instead you let them initiate sex and then milk the moment for all it’s worth, because you know the second it’s over you’re going to want more and you’re not sure when or if you’re going to get it.
You don’t tell the guy you’re dating that you wake up in the middle of the night and watch him sleep because your mind refuses to believe you’re finally lying next to the guy you dreamed of for so long. Instead you just smile at him when he asks if you slept all right.
So of course I didn’t know Tyler.
On the other hand, I knew exactly who he was.
“That’s none of your business,” I snapped and knew instantly it was the wrong way to go.
“Then allow me to enlighten you. This man befriended my son and then left him to die in the middle of nowhere while his husband screamed for someone to help them. This is the man who decided it was more prudent to let someone who called him a friend die in the same manner one does to a stray dog rather than stop and try to help him. This is the man you are dating.”
Tyler had said nothing the entire time. Each word she said left another wound open and bleeding for the world to see. Every accusation was another blow that he didn’t block. He looked like a boxer standing dazed in the ring, no fight left, beaten mercilessly by an opponent gone crazy.
“He’s not the one making a scene,” I replied shortly.
“I’m not making a scene. I am confronting the man who let my son die.” Her stare focused on Tyler.
Again he just stood there, refusing to look up.
“Is there a problem here?” the manager asked, walk-running across the dining room in a way meant to assure the rest of the patrons that the building wasn’t collapsing. His expression said something else entirely.
“I want this man out of my sight immediately,” she snapped, pointing a finger at Tyler.
“Sir,” he said to Tyler. “I’m afraid….”
Tyler grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. “It’s fine, we’re leaving.”
He tossed some bills on the table. “You ready, Matt?”
Ready? No, I wasn’t ready, but it didn’t seem like I had any choice. I grabbed my jacket and gave her one last look. I wanted to make it clear to her the mess that she’d started was far from over.
From the way she blanched at my look, she got the message.